Archiving an Answer From Reddit

From a deleted post on r/explainlikeimfive that asked, “What makes a book a New York Times Best Seller and how does almost every book I read have this award?” The answers there were not, shall we say, entirely informed, so I chimed in. The post was deleted because the person who posted it did not confirm to the subreddit rules in some way, so I’m reposting my answer here, for archival purposes. Here’s what I wrote:

So, actual New York Times best selling novelist here.

One: The New York Times list very generally tracks sales, but also employs other criteria in order to mitigate “gaming,” — so, for example, they tend to disregard “bulk buys” of a book and will otherwise asterisk books they think have manipulated sales. Gaming the list is a moving target, so the criteria change over time. The point of the list is to give a snapshot of what people are actually purchasing but also, hopefully, reading (or at least giving to others to read).

Two: The number of books needed to get onto the list vary from week to week because one’s book is ranked against other books selling that week. I have two books that sold a roughly equal amount of units, and one made the NYT list and one didn’t, presumably because of how other books were selling that particular week.

Three: There’s also more than one list, and the lists cover various criteria. I’ve been on the Mass Market Paperback, Hardcover, Combined Print/EBook and Audiobook lists (all in fiction). Some lists are more difficult to get on than others and some have more “prestige” than others (Hardcover being the most prestigious for various historical reasons).

Four: Rumors of publishers gaming the list are (generally) more exaggerated than not. Remember from point 1 that the NYT actively mitigates for gaming, so tricks rarely work (or work for long). Be that as it may, when I go on a book tour, often the first few stops are to bookstores who are known to be polled by the NYT regarding sales. I still have to sell the books, mind you, to actual people who usually then want to read it. That’s acceptable, where “bulk buying” is not.

The idea that publishers go out of their way to buy copies of their authors’ books in order to get into the lists doesn’t have much relation to reality. First, it’s not an efficient way to spend marketing money, especially on a world where publishers can micro-target their advertising on social media. Second, it’s a strategy that would lead to an escalation, because everyone would do it and then you’d need ever-increasing piles of “sales” to get on lists, and eventually that becomes self-defeating. Third, I think people outside publishing wildly overestimate the amount of money publishers are willing to spend marketing individual books in general. Outside of a highly rarified stratum of authors and books, most books’ marketing budgets are modest – including those of books which sometimes end up on the lists.

Five: It is absolutely correct that publishers use “NYT Bestseller” for marketing, because, bluntly, it works – people often like knowing that they’re not going out on a limb and that something they’re thinking of buying had the implicit endorsement of others. This is the “50 million Elvis fans can’t be wrong!” angle. That said, no, something (or someone) being an NYT Bestseller is not an assurance of quality, other than in the most basic “this author was competent enough to sell to a publisher in the first place” way. Lots of crap is popular and lots of high quality stuff barely sells. It goes the other way, too, mind you. You won’t necessarily know by the “NYT Bestseller” bug on the cover.

Six: Finally, Bestseller lists, NYT and otherwise, are snapshots of what is selling at a particular time and under certain particular criteria, and lots of things are missed. Literally tens of thousands of sales I made of my last book were not counted for that book’s NYT Bestseller list placement, because they were in audio, not print/EBook (which was the list it ended up on). Likewise, my bestselling book of all time has never been on any major bestseller list at all. It just keeps selling a healthy amount, week after month after year, for a decade and a half. You can be a very very successful author indeed, and barely hit the lists.

Hope this is useful.

— JS

22 Comments on “Archiving an Answer From Reddit”

  1. Also, the reason why one might see so many books from NYT Bestsellers is basically survivorship bias: The books and authors that are more likely to be stocked and then restocked on bookseller shelves are ones that have a track record of sales: bestsellers, in other words.

  2. You’ve been at the top of the MOBL for a long time, without ever gaming the system, and no bulk buying.

    It’s the My Opinion Bestseller List, so usually only one copy of a book.

  3. “Likewise, my bestselling book of all time has never been on any major bestseller list at all. It just keeps selling a healthy amount, week after month after year, for a decade and a half. ”

    Come on, Mr Scalzi! You can’t just dangle that comment at the end of the article and then leave us hanging!

    A quick scan over your Wiki page suggests that the book in question is probably The Android’s Dream, given the ‘for a decade and a half’ clue and the fact that it is conspicuous among your published books of around 2005-2007 that does not get a single mention in the awards listed just below that.

    Of course, ‘did not get nominated for an award’ and ‘Not on any NYT best-seller lists’ are not at all the same thing, so my half-assed deductive efforts could well be b-arking up the wrong tree.

  4. Certainly TAD is a highly worthy contender for the spot as your very best seller, regardless of whether I am correct or not.

    IMHO, TAD doesn’t get nearly the praise or promotion it deserves.

  5. Old Man’s War is my bestselling book, by a not insignificant margin.

    The Android’s Dream is actually probably the one of mine that has sold the least. It still sells perfectly well! But not as well as later books.

  6. I always have one answer to any “bestseller list” argument about quality: The DaVinci Code.

  7. Why is the New York Times considered the standard, for bestsellers? I don’t recall seeing too many books with something like “Cleveland Plain Dealer” or “San Francisco Chronicle” bestseller.

  8. ObeeKris:

    They’ve been doing it for a long time, and they have prestige. Although in fact regional newspapers do their own bestseller lists all the time, and it’s not that unusual to see them noted, often in aggregate. Likewise the USA Today list. In the UK, the Sunday Times is the most prestigious list.

  9. I’m somewhat familiar with NYT-list-gaming tactics. Mostly from following your blog and from an article I read about the RNC bulk-buying books by certain conservative authors to get them on the list.

    Do you have insight in how Amazon comes up with their “number one top sellers” by category? I’ve seen books selling less than 100 copies featured as “top sellers”, ranked above the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons.

  10. As someone not involved in book publishing, nor as a reader of the NYT, but who notices that you refer to books being “on the list”, does “a NYT best seller” literally have to be the best seller/on the top of the list for a given period, or does it just have to be on the list. If so, how many books are on the list? And how often does the list change?

    My naive assumption was that the list changes at most once per week (book sales are not reported on a daily basis?) and only one book can be at the top. Therefore there can be, at most, 52 NYT Best Sellers in a given year. But given that some books will top the list for multiple weeks in a row, it should probably be less. Maybe 10 – 25 in a year.

    If this isn’t the case, as a back-of-the-envelope estimate, roughly how many books should get to claim “NYT Best Seller” in a given year?

  11. I read somewhere that L Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth and Mission: Earth books were purchased in bulk by Scientologists, who didn’t even make a pretense that they were going to read the books. (The books were returned in unopened boxes a month later or the like.) And this was what inspired the NYT to counter the gaming of their lists.

    The NYT split off a separate children’s list after J K Rowling had four books on the main list, as Pottermania was seriously taking off.

  12. I’m pretty sure there is at least attempted gaming of The List by, not publishers, but political allies of some “conservative” “authors.” Bulk-buying of books at list price using political donation $$ seems to be a thing, where the book was “written” by a Republican officeholder or apologist. I’m pretty sure Republicans have been doing this kind of thing for long enough that the Scientologists didn’t have to invent it.

  13. People often and frequently try to game the list; have we all forgotten about Lani Sarem’s “Handbook for Mortals” debacle?

    Of course, as that demonstrated, such gaming attempts tend to be quickly corrected…

  14. @Fatman, I believe but can’t prove that Amazon figures in how many copies sell in a given time frame — so a lot of sales all at once will boost a book’s ranking.

    Back in the late 90s or very early 2000s, a historical costuming e-list I was on got a heads-up that THE top reference for Elizabethan costume was apparently being remaindered by Amazon UK — list price 75 pounds sterling, it was on sale for 18 pounds sterling. Amazon UK was then hit with a piranha-frenzy of costumers trying to grab the book before it disappeared. The actual situation was that someone at Amazon UK typed the wrong price for the book into the database … but the heads-up went out on a Friday, and there was no one there to fix matters until Monday. For that one shining weekend, Janet Arnold and “Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d” was beating JK Rowling and Harry Potter in the Amazon UK bestseller list.

  15. @Wade Scholine:
    Definitely. There’s a billionaire named Dick Scaife who regularly bought thousands of copies of books by the likes of Coulter and O’Reilly, then gave them away. My local yearly booksale (in super liberal CT) would have these. They were not only in unread condition, but unopened.

    Also, and I know this is a cheap shot, but I had 2 friends growing up named Richard. One called himself Rich and the other Rick. And Scaife decided he wanted people to call him a Dick.

  16. “Likewise, my bestselling book of all time has never been on any major bestseller list at all. It just keeps selling a healthy amount, week after month after year, for a decade and a half. You can be a very very successful author indeed, and barely hit the lists.”
    AKA the classic “long tail” sales graph that, for a movie, makes for a cult classic.

  17. This is just to say

    I have answered
    the question
    that was on

    and which
    someone was probably
    for qanon
    or hentai
    or some shit like that

    Forgive me
    it was enticing
    so new
    and yet so old

  18. @Leah:

    “@Fatman, I believe but can’t prove that Amazon figures in how many copies sell in a given time frame — so a lot of sales all at once will boost a book’s ranking.”

    Thanks, I was thinking along the same lines. But it has to be a very narrow, or very specific, timeframe, because some books get in there on very small sales numbers.

    @ Bill the Splut:

    “They were not only in unread condition, but unopened.”

    I’m pretty sure these types of books go unopened even in the reddest of red states. O’Reilly’s historical fiction series possibly exempted.

  19. @Wade Scholine: Megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll got into some hot water for these tactics, too. He had a lot of other stuff going on, too. He is a real piece of work, even by megachurch pastor standards.

  20. “Thanks, I was thinking along the same lines. But it has to be a very narrow, or very specific, timeframe, because some books get in on very small sales numbers.”

    Amazon also ranks “best-sellers” in a very large number of categories, so between that and the short time frames it uses, I’ve heard you can become “an Amazon best-seller” in a specialized niche with a surprisingly small number of sales, if those sales are made within a short time, and not many other current titles have been assigned to that niche. You might have to act fast to grab the screenshot showing your status, though.

    At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Those with personal experience are welcome to jump in and elaborate or say how I’m wrong. It makes for a nice ego-boost, and sometimes book promotions will say they’re “an Amazon bestseller”, but without further detail I don’t take that boast very seriously as a reader.

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